The Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Harry S. Truman, whose presidency included momentous events from the atomic bombing of Japan to the outbreak of the Cold War and the Korean War, told by America's beloved and distinguished historian. The life of Harry S. Truman is one of the greatest of American stories, filled with vivid characters--Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess Wallace Truman, George Marshall, Joe McCarthy, and Dean Acheson--and dramatic events. In this riveting biography, acclaimed historian David McCullough not only captures the man--a more complex, informed, and determined man than ever before imagined--but also the turbulent times in which he rose, boldly, to meet unprecedented challenges. The last president to serve as a living link between the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, Truman's story spans the raw world of the Missouri frontier, World War I, the powerful Pendergast machine of Kansas City, the legendary Whistle-Stop Campaign of 1948, and the decisions to drop the atomic bomb, confront Stalin at Potsdam, send troops to Korea, and fire General MacArthur. Drawing on newly discovered archival material and extensive interviews with Truman's own family, friends, and Washington colleagues, McCullough tells the deeply moving story of the seemingly ordinary "man from Missouri" who was perhaps the most courageous president in our history.
Truman's popularity revived at times during his Presidency, most notably during his remarkable campaign for re-election in 1948. But the revivals were always brief. The real rehabilitation of his reputation -- the process that has turned him into something of a folk hero -- began later, well after he left office, and has accelerated in the 20 years since his death. Its culmination may be "Truman," David McCullough's warm, affectionate and thoroughly captivating biography. "Truman," Mr. McCullough writes near the end of this long book, "held to the old guidelines: work hard, do your best, speak the truth, assume no airs, trust in God, have no fear." He was "a figure of world stature, both a great and good man, and a great American President." . . .
Why did I love this book? You learn about American life and values as they were when America was still a land of pioneers to what it had become by the middle of the 20th Century. What the political parties stood for has changed dramatically with time. On completion of this book you have a thorough understanding of the American party system. You travel from an agrarian Midwest value mindset through WW1, the Depression, the New Deal, WW2, the emergence of atomic weapons, the birth of the UN and NATO, the Berlin blockade and successful airlift, the Cold War and McCarthyism, the focus on civil rights, the Korean War all the way up to Kennedy’s presidency. You follow this time-period through the life of a man living through its events, and a man who as president shaped many of these events. McCullough gives you a thorough understanding of all these events and a thorough understanding of the man Truman.
It is an honest book that never shies away from the mistakes made. I wasn’t thrilled with Truman’s friendship and dependence upon Pendergast. I felt that Truman’s relationship with his wife was at first not adequately clarified. By the end I understood Truman, all of him. I believe I comprehend both his familial relationships and the value he put on friendships, which explain his relationship with Pendergast . You see both the good and the bad. I very much admire the strength and forthrightness of Truman who was at heart a marvelous politician. Yes, definitely a politician who fought for his party and made mistakes, but dam he tried his best. Always. He never shirked his responsibilities. He never ran away from a problem, but faced them head on. He was not infallible. I still don’t understand why they never had more children……
I was born in 1951. I understand now what my parents lived through and why they were who they were. I understand now what lead up to the world I was born into. I totally loved this book.
Completed April 20, 2013
He was a mid-westerner with mid-western values who was an autodidact. In spite of being the last president without a college education, he was forward thinking, a term he preferred over liberal or even progressive. His driving force as a politician from the beginning of his career was to make people's lives better, and it must be said that he did at every level of his public service.
Still, I found this biography uninteresting because Truman's personality and character were fixed early in life, he never experienced what would be termed an epiphany. He arrived to young adulthood with his attitudes and values fixed and he never significantly varied from them. Yet, they served him well all his life, except as a businessman.
Honest, full of common sense, able to get people to work for him toward his goals, and blessedly without an ego that would interfere with a job getting done, he was a man who served as president at the greatest turning point in mankind's history -- the arrival of the atomic age, and he steered this country away from continued armed conflict with the Soviet Union at the end of WWII and dawn of the Cold War.
His life is a testament to the truism that great events make great men. Truman definitely was a great, and quiet, and private man. But even McCullough can not make him the least bit fascinating.
McCullough begins by quickly covering the lives of Truman’s grandparents and parents who relocated and lived on the frontier of Missouri beginning 40 years before his birth. McCullough then guides the reader through Truman’s childhood as his father attempt to succeed in various businesses with mild to no success while young Harry went through school and attempt to strike out on his own in nearby Kansas City until finally joining his family when they went working his maternal grandmother’s large farm that he would continue to work until he joined the Army in 1917 where he would see combat as a Captain of the artillery during the Hundred Days Offensive that led to the armistice. After the war, Truman opened a business that started well but failed during the recession of 1921 after which he turned to attention to politics and becoming a part of the Pendergast political machine. Successful in his first campaign to be a county administrative judge, he failed in reelection only to succeed in the next election to becoming the presiding judge which was a position he used to transform Jackson County with numerous public works that eventually gets him noticed by the new Roosevelt administration that eventually got him a position in the New Deal programs in Missouri. After Pendergast rejected Truman for a run for governor or Congress, he selected him a run for Senate in 1934 and Truman’s victory in the primary he was considered the Pendergast Senator not a Missourian. Through hard work during his term, Truman became a respected member of the Senate but when he went to be reelected, the Pendergast machine was in disarray due to various federal criminal trials and the Roosevelt administration didn’t support him, he was in a uphill battle. In a forerunner to his 1948 upset, Truman outworked his opponents and received support from the St. Louis political machine, which had opposed Pendergast’s Kansas City machine for decades, to a slim victory. During his second term, Truman became a national figure with his Select Committee to Investigate Defense Spending that investigated wasteful spending that saved roughly $15 billion that eventually would get him to be selected as Roosevelt’s 1944 Vice Presidential running mate that was essentially a nomination to be Roosevelt’s successor because everyone knew he would not live out his term. Truman’s nearly 8 years in office cover nearly 60% of the book that started off with his decisions and actions for the five months that dealt with challenges that no other President save Lincoln had to deal with. The challenges of a post-war America especially in the economic sphere led to a Republican takeover of Congress that many blamed Truman for, who used the loss to his advantage to stake differences between both parties that would eventually lead to his strategy for the 1948 Presidential campaign that led to him becoming President in his own right. Truman’s second term was dominated by his decision to military intervene in Korea that would lead to a confrontation with General Douglas McArthur that put civilian control of the military at stake, but also would continually lead to charges of Communist subversion of government jobs that reached a fever pitch with Joseph McCarthy. Once out of office, Truman transitioned to a regular citizen and began figuring out how to financially support his family, which eventually lead to Presidential pension laws for Truman and future holders of the office and creating the Presidential Library system that we know today. But after leaving office very unpopular, Truman’s popularity grew over the two decades of his post-Presidency so upon his death he was genuinely mourned by the public.
McCullough’s writing reads like a novel with his subject his main character and every other individual in a supporting character to reflect upon the protagonist. As I noted in my synopsis, most of the book covers Truman’s time in office that McCullough documents with detail and when doing a Presidential biography of the man who essentially had to deal with the end of the largest war in human history and the beginning of the Cold War is to be expected. With documentation of Truman’s early life not a prevalent, McCullough’s decision to turn a spotlight to his grandparents and parents at the beginning of the book and throughout Truman’s life added depth to the man and the also the area where he grew up and shaped him.
Truman brings the humble man from Missouri to life for those that have only seen him in black and white photographs and film, David McCullough’s writing hooks the reader from the beginning and makes you want to see how Harry S. Truman’s life played out in all facets.
Anyone who loves history and biography as much as I do knows David McCullough writes like a storyteller. His prose is never dry, boring, or academic, yet he unfailingly tells the reader what is important to know about a person or an event.
I thought I knew a lot about Harry Truman, a fellow Midwesterner, but I didn't. I simply understood "where he was coming from" as the kids say. His childhood as a farm boy who wore glasses and was also a dedicated student was delightful to read about. In Sunday school he fell hard for a little girl with golden curls and beautiful eyes, Bess Wallace. She was his only love but they didn't marry until they were in their 30s. Mama Wallace never did consider Harry good enough for her daughter, even when she was dying in the White House near the end of his time as President of the United States. Regardless, he never said a bad word about her, ever.
Now that I know the truth about his spell as Tom Pendergast's candidate for county office and the enduring reputation as a product of that political machine, I understand a bit more about why my grandfather had such a low opinion of Truman. Of course, he would have felt that way anyway since Truman was a Democrat which made him, in Gramps' eyes, a spawn of the Devil. Hard to believe this liberal Democrat (me) came from such a staunch Republican family, but I did because when I was old enough to think things out for myself, that was the way I believed. That was a matter I never discussed with Gramps. He would have been horrified.
We were city people, but farmers and small town folks loved Truman. When he went on his whistle stop tour running for president on his own, he stopped in the small towns and he talked their language. They loved his honesty, his humbleness, the way he introduced Bess as "the boss," and his knowledge of their cares and worries. (Although one time she told him if he introduced her thus one more time, she was going to get off the train and go home.) They also appreciated his service in World War I, as a captain of artillery. The men he commanded were to remain his good friends for the rest of his life and participate as honor guards at his inaugural parade.
His Achilles heel was daughter Margaret. No one could criticize her singing or anything else about her without feeling the full strength of Truman's wrath. He had begun to think he would never realize his desire to be a grandfather when she stayed single so long, but eventually she married and Truman would hold the first of four grandsons in his arms just a few days after he was born. Doting grandpa was his proud title from then on.
It was fascinating to read about his taking office after Roosevelt's death. FDR had not liked him very much, and didn't include him in briefings and conferences, so suddenly Truman had a huge learning curve immediately ahead of him. He pulled himself up by his own bootstraps as people used to say and did very well. He was fortunate enough to find some of the best men in the country to man the cabinet and be his advisors. Dean Acheson, in fact, was a close friend until his death.
His performance in Potsdam was surprising to Stalin and Churchill. One of my favorite quotes in the book is from Churchill. He wrote in 1952, "I misjudged you badly. Since that time you more than any other man, have saved Western civilization." (p. 875)
Whether to use the atomic bomb is another period I'm glad to know more about, and Korea. To know what went on in the background and the agony those decisions cost him was a revelation to me. Once a decision was made, he stuck with it no matter how many critics condemned him.
I won't go on but, in short, this is one of the best biographies I've ever read. Thank you David McCullough for giving us this wonderful story, the life of a controversial man who was so vital in our history.
Source: purchased several years ago
Like Adams, Harry S. Truman had the misfortune of succeeding a legendary figure. While Adams presided under the shadow of George Washington, Truman had to undergo the scrutiny of an American public who had been led through many great trials by the great Franklin D. Roosevelt. Truman proved that, while he was no FDR, he was certainly his own man and very well capable of holding his own during the many conflicts of his own presidency.
In Truman, we are brought into his story well before his birth as McCullough fills us in on the details of his family heritage. We follow Truman through his childhood, his stint as a gallant officer during World War I, his romancing of and subsequent marriage to Bess Wallace, and his rise up and into the political world. McCullough does an excellent job of covering several controversial topics such as the Marshall Plan, the Korean Conflict, the Manhattan Project, McCarthyism, and the firing of Gen. Douglas MacArthur without getting bogged down in presenting his own opinions on these matters, instead letting the historical accounts speak for themselves. We are treated to the often exciting, edge-of-your-seat workings of political campaigning, including Truman’s first presidential nomination as well as his momentous and astounding defeat of Thomas Dewey.
At well over 1,000 pages, Truman is a hefty read. But being already familiar with McCullough’s style, I knew it would be a great read and I was not disappointed. Not being a historian nor familiar with this period of U.S. history, I can’t speak to the factual accuracy of the book’s events. But once again, McCullough does a masterful job of bringing the person off the written page to the point where you feel like you know the person himself. By the end of the book and upon the account of Truman’s death, I felt like I had lost a friend. Truman is an excellent biography, an inspirational story and one that will have you keeping late hours just to read one more page.
I certainly have greater respect for Harry Truman. I was particularly struck how little he sought politics. His first elected position as county administrator was offered to him by a local political boss. Harry proved so adept at administration that he rode a wave of success all the way to the United States senate. He was loyal to his party in the Senate but not widely known for any particular speeches or legislation. One exception to this was the Truman Commission, which weeded out graft and waste in government contracting during World War II. Truman was propelled to the Vice Presidency against his own wishes, largely due to the fact that Roosevelt was paying no attention to the issue and all the other more popular choices had fatal flaws. Only three months after inauguration, Roosevelt is dead and Truman finds himself suddenly responsible for ending World War II. He is admired by Churchill, and is deceived by Stalin. He somehow survives the ordeal of the Presidency, then decides to make a run for a second term despite low approval ratings. He pulls off an upset victory against Dewey at age 64 after an enormously successful "whistle stop" tour of the United States by train. His second term is dominated by the Korean War, a product of the Cold War and the fear that Russia and the Communists are advancing. The Korean War drives down Truman's popularity once again. He survives to the end of his term and is succeeded by Eisenhower, who became popular as a World War II general and actually served as Chief of Staff to Truman, who thought Eisenhower was a Democrat. Truman's popularity grows once he returns to Independence, Missouri and lives on to the age of 84 surviving not only Eisenhower but Adlai Stevenson, Dean Acheson, MacArthur and a great number of other monumental figures of the twentieth century.
Churchill wasn't alone in his doubts about Harry Truman. A common man from Independence, Missouri, Truman became President at a key historical moment in the midst of World War II. In the first few months as President, he made the decision to drop atomic bombs in Japan and negotiated an end to the war with Churchill and Stalin at Potsdam. Truman also dealt with labor unrest at home, the rise of the Cold War, the Korean War, and more. McCullough covers these events in just the right amount of detail, and each detail is chosen carefully. While the length of the book may seem daunting, the story never drags. This is a beautiful portrait of an intriguing period of history, and it made me want to read more about many of the supporting players (Churchill, Stalin, Bess Truman, McCarthy, Eisenhower, MacArthur, etc.).
Besides describing a fascinating slice of history, McCullough also provides us with insight into Truman the man. As a Missourian by birth, I recognized Truman's honesty and plainspokenness. People knew where they stood with Truman. But at the same time, Truman was anything but a simple man. As McCullough concludes, "The homely attributes, the Missouri wit, the warmth of his friendship, the genuineness of Harry Truman, however, appealing, were outweighed by the larger qualities that made him a figure of world stature, both a great and good man, and a great American president." But McCullough doesn't avoid Truman's faults - his connections with the Pendergast bosses, his unquestioned loyalty to those from back home, and his occasional temper. What we get in this biography is a complete picture of the man and the times in which he led.